Friday, February 27, 2015

The Rise of the Remedial Christian

I attended a church service recently (bully for me) as part of our ongoing quest to find a "church home" in Colorado Springs. The search here is something akin to going to the grocery store for cereal when you don't really know what you have a taste for: Colorado Springs is the land of evangelical ecclesiastical overchoice, which, I assure you, can be paralyzing and perplexing.

(My friend Sean Gladding, on loan to the United States from England, once complained about the cereal aisle: "How many combinations of white flour and sugar do we really need?!?" He's a foreigner, folks; cut him some slack.)

My antennae may be up a little higher these days as I visit these churches; I notice little quirks and tics of each preacher, I scrutinize song choice, I look for typos in the bulletins. Admittedly, I'm not my best self in these moments. But at this particular church service I noticed something interesting: the pastor started to say something, caught himself, took a deep breath, and went for it:

"I think ... it's possible, actually ... that Jesus ... might have ... maybe ... been a progressive?"

Nobody stormed out of the sanctuary, to my knowledge, and I think he still has his job - even here where "progressive" seems to be a euphemism for "heretic." Seriously. I was forewarned by a friend never to say anything nice about President Obama. Anything. Even "Nice suit, Mr. President" requires a pronounced tone of sarcasm.

I've only scratched the surface of the broad swath of Colorado Springs churches, so I'm sure progressive is not a universal byword here. But it did strike me how scandalous a mere word could be, how damaging a label it can become.

Meanwhile, I recently read a portion of Martin Luther King Jr's letter from Birmingham Jail for a video project some friends of mine put together for Martin Luther King Day. (You can watch the fifty-minute video here.) The portion I read was in praise of my wife's great uncle Ralph McGill and other "white moderates," whom King acknowledged had taken brave stands against segregation and for the reconciliation of the South. "They are still all too few in quantity," King wrote, "but they are big in quality." It struck me at the time (you can read my reflections here) that King didn't call these folks "white radicals" or "white progressives"; he referred to them as "white moderates." This is significant, I think: championing the civil rights of another human being isn't a radical or even progressive stance; it's fundamentally moderate, almost the least a person can do.

And then I went to a brief conference to discuss the church's relationship to the millennial generation, which was described at one point as a mosaic of "nomads, prodigals and exiles." All nouns. All labels. All fixed identities which can quickly degrade into caricature. It's saying a lot about a person to say that they are a nomad, or an exile, or a progressive, for that matter, It says a lot about a person to call them (even to call yourself) a conservative, or an evangelical. It simultaneously sums a person up and says more about them than is possible to know.

When adjectives (such as "progressive" or "conservative") become nouns, beware. When words are applied to human beings that are better applied to abstract concepts (such as "exile"), we are in danger of abandoning our humanity and converting ourselves into abstractions.

Abstractions can be helpful, as means to an end, and so conversations about progressivism and conservatism, nomadicism and the like, and how they are embraced and engaged among various demographics can yield helpful insights. But people are not abstractions: they are not means to an end. They are not even ends, really; they are active subjects, in constant flux. If anything, they are middles, or beginnings.

In any case, to quote the great Ferris Bueller, "Isms in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an ism; he should believe in himself." Good point there. We are more than the isms that enthrall us, and we should be wary of where our isms take us. A progressive or a conservative becomes a caricature to her ideological opposites: to the progressive, all conservatives are probably racist, xenophobic, homophobic tyrants; to the conservative, if you're a progressive, you must have been at some point dropped on your head.

But more than that, a person who has been absorbed into an ism will find herself with strange bedfellows, uncomfortable allies, Facebook friends who demand explanations but are without excuse. Who hasn't winced at the careless comment of an ideological ally, knowing that we're somehow going to have to excuse or defend them for saying it?

We are tempted to surrender our identities to our isms, and once we've done so, we've succumbed to idolatry and become accessories to all kinds of evil.

The kingdom of God will allow no isms. There are Jews and Greeks in the kingdom of God, but there is no Jew nor Greek. There are men and women in the kingdom of God, but there is no male or female. There is no slave or free in the kingdom of God, because slavery exists only under the auspices of our isms, and our isms have no place in the new creation. It is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for our isms to accompany us into the kingdom of God.

That's why I propose a new category of Christian, one that abandons the artificial polarities of conservatism and progressivism, which are far too often partners in pointlessness. Please join me in welcoming ... the rise of the remedial Christian!

There's nothing magical about the word remedial, but as a modifier of Christian I like it very much. It suggests what Dr. King declares: that submitting and subjecting ourselves to the right thing, even in the face of hostility or marginalization or ridicule or violence, is nothing terribly special. It's not especially progressive to say that all human beings are vested with the same God-given rights. It is at best moderate but in fact remedial, almost the least we can do.

Similarly, it's not especially conservative to acknowledge the fundamental responsibility of each person for their own decisions, though it's claimed as a tenet of conservatism. Such an idea is remedial, roughly akin to stating the obvious.

Remedial implies something basic, so basic that it's easily overlooked and often undervalued. It implies something that resolves a problem not by creating something new but by going back to the beginning. "This is a football" is remedial coaching; with it Vince Lombardi kicked off each season with a reminder that the basics are what's important, and everything else builds on it.

Remedial has etymological connections to remedy, which implies healing, relief. Ferris's dad, believing him to be sick, encouraged him to "wrap a hot towel around your head ... then make yourself some soup, get a nap." Not the cure for cancer, but then again, Ferris didn't have cancer. It was a remedial prescription, and everytime a Gen-Xer feels a fever coming on, it's one of the first things that comes to mind.

Remedial is a good thing in the same way that reform (a la "Reformation") is a good thing, in the same way that repentance (as in "Repent! For the kingdom of God is near!") is a good thing. But in the same way as repentance, remedial is nothing to brag about. "Amazing grace ... that saved a wretch like me" is a statement of remedial faith: its author recognized that grace is not an achievement but a gift. We can't be boastful or judgmental when we're being remedial, when we understand ourselves as remedial. It just doesn't sound right. It's hard to pull off blustery entitlement on a news show panel when the caption under your name reads "Remedial Christian."

Now, I recognize that what I'm proposing is a little silly, but then again, silly proposals aren't necessarily bad. Consider when Naaman, a general of the army of Aram, found himself leprous. He sought help from the prophet Elisha, who told him to take seven baths in the river Jordan. Naaman was offended at the lack of complexity in this proposed remedy, but his servant challenged him:

“Father, if the prophet had asked you to do something hard and heroic, wouldn’t you have done it? So why not this simple ‘wash and be clean’?”
Remedial, yes, but it worked: Naaman took seven baths and came out completely healed. Imagine how much healing might be available to us if we set aside our commitments to complexity, our idolatry of our isms, and just allowed ourselves and each other to be what we are already: basic people, all trying to figure it out together.

Enjoy it while it lasts, though. As soon as we embrace "remedial Christianity," we'll start crafting a new idol: remedialism. God help us, every one.


Sunday, February 01, 2015

A Prayer for Super Bowl Sunday by Walter Brueggemann

Leave it to Walter Brueggemann to have both the moxie and the skills to sacralize Super Bowl Sunday, which he does in his 2008 collection Prayers for a Privileged People. "It is no challenge to me," he writes, "to rethink myself along with other privileged believers, even if our privilege tends to work against openheartedness." It's no challenge to him because he recognizes that he is a person of privilege, enjoying benefits accruing to his ethnicity, gender and social class that were woven into the cultural fabric years, decades, even centuries before he was born. That's all well and good, but what could the Super Bowl possibly have to do with social privilege?

Read on and find out. If you have a little moxie, you might even pray it.

* * *

The world of fast money,
and loud talk,
and much hype is upon us.
We praise huge men whose names will linger only briefly.

We will eat and drink,
and gamble and laugh,
and cheer and hiss,
and marvel and then yawn.

We show up, most of us, for such a circus,
and such an indulgence.
Loud clashing bodies,
violence within rules,
and money and merchandise and music.

And you - today like every day -
you govern and watch and summon;
you glad when there is joy in the earth,
But you notice our liturgies of disregard and
our litanies of selves made too big,
our fascination with machismo power,
and lust for bodies and for big bucks.

TWEET THIS: Our life consists not in things we consume but in neighbors we embrace. Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People

And around you gather today, as every day,
elsewhere uninvited, but noticed by you,
those disabled and gone feeble,
those alone and failed,
those uninvited and shamed.
And you whose gift is more than "super,"
overflowing, abundant, adequate, all sufficient.

The day of preoccupation with creature comforts writ large.
We pause to be mindful of our creatureliness,
our commonality with all that is small and vulnerable exposed,
your creatures called to obedience and praise.

Give us some distance from the noise,
some reserve about the loud success of the day,
that we may remember that our life consists
not in things we consume
but in neighbors we embrace.

Be our good neighbor that we may practice
your neighborly generosity all through our needy neighborhood.

Monday, January 19, 2015

What Kind of Extremists? Living Letters from Birmingham Jail

I was honored to take part in this reading of Martin Luther King's letter from Birmingham Jail, written in response to public criticisms of the nonviolent direct action of the Civil Rights Movement. I wrote about my experience participating in this reading last month; you can read my reflections here.

King wrote this letter from prison, without access to his library or research notes, so you get a sense from this letter the deep theological underpinnings of the movement. You also get a sense of the contemporary urgency of the "basic constitutional rights" still being fought throughout and beyond the United States. Thanks to Red Letter Christians for taking on this project, and to Micky ScottBey Jones for her leadership in bringing this special project together.

I try to read this letter once or twice a year: Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a good opportunity, as is the anniversary of King's death every April 4. Read it for yourself here.

Friday, January 09, 2015

More Like a Millennial: #FightBackwithJoy in 2015

The first time I met Margaret Feinberg, I knew I would like her. I knew because she gave me a candy bar. For free. And not one of those fun-sized ones; this was the whole enchilada, if you will, one of those candy bars you buy on impulse at check out. For free.

Margaret was leading a conversation about publishing with a millennial audience in mind when I met her. This is something she's particularly qualified to speak to, as she's published about a bazillion books and articles, and she's given herself to a millennial audience in each case. That's not to say that older (and now, sigh, younger) readers don't go for her stuff, because they do. But there's something in the Zeitgeist of the millennial generation that lends itself to freshness, hopefulness, a lightness of being that's not naive or simplistic. Reading millennial writing isn't always illuminating, in the sense of learning something new, but it is almost always enlightening, in the sense of easing your load and dispensing with darkness.

From left: Hershey, Margaret, Leif

So it's not surprising that a book - Margaret's latest, Fight Back with Joy - with so serious a subtext as cancer is nevertheless brisk and fun and defiant and lively. Margaret sent me some of the early chapters some time ago, which I was eager to read, as she tells her cancer story in the book. She does so with great vulnerability and courage; the anxiousness and suffering that attends to a cancer diagnosis is not neglected or minimized. But this isn't ultimately a book about cancer; it's a book about joy, and joy - not as a feeling but as a discipline, as a resource - permeates the book.

I doubt people who know me well would characterize me as "joyful." I do laugh a lot, and I crack a lot of jokes and enjoy a fair amount of playtime with my friends. But I think closer to the center of my life experience is cynicism, a jaded view of the world. Blame it on the music I listen to, if you want, or blame it on my generation: the X in "Generation X" likely stands for "Expect to be disappointed." In any case, when things get hard, I don't typically fight back with joy, as Margaret suggests; I more often fight back with snark.

I remember a time when I was editing a devotional, and I added the phrase "Yeah, right" to a mildly humorous entry - which was, I hasten to add, my right as editor of a work-for-hire writer. (See? Snark.) The writer demanded that I take the phrase out, with the condescending comment "I can't affirm that kind of sarcasm." You can perhaps imagine how eager I was to work with her again. I don't subscribe to the school of thought that sees sarcasm as a character flaw; I hear it in the voice of the Lord in the Sacred Scriptures, for God's sake:
"Go ahead! Cry out for help to the gods you’ve chosen—let them get you out of the mess you’re in!”

"Where were you when I created the earth? Tell me, since you know so much!"
The occasional sarcastic barb, I've come to understand, is one thing; a lifestyle grounded in cynicism is quite another. Sarcasm may punctuate a point, but cynicism is a kind of abdication of responsibility; it assumes that things that demand to be changed are unchangeable, and it consoles a person with the notion that at least you get it; at least you're not simplistic and naive enough to think change is possible. Cynicism as a lifestyle starts the human story with the fall of Adam and Eve and ends it with the latest bad day. It finds evidence of original sin everywhere it looks, because it expects to find it.

Cynicism is arguably chronic in our age, but it's no more inherent to our being than "original sin" is original to our existence. There's a story that predates the fall of Adam and Eve, a story that, as Margaret points out, is filled with joy.

A close inspection of the first chapter of Genesis describes the fabric of creation as knit together with divine affection and delight. Throughout the process of creation, God observes and celebrates the goodness of what he makes. The declaration “God saw that it was good” rings out like a holy chorus until God eyes all he has made and concludes, “It was very good.”

God’s repeated declaration of “good” suggests that God delighted in the outcome multiple times. God was so pleased and happy with the results that he percolated with joy. The rich imagery of Genesis 1 suggests the kind of creative high an artist experiences upon completion of a great work.

Another vivid illustration of the creation story is tucked into Proverbs. The personified voice of wisdom, one of God’s active attributes in creation, describes, “Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.”
Joy is inherent to God's approach to the world. Joy is characteristic of wisdom. As Margaret observes, "We spring from joy," because we are made in the image of God, and God is joyful in his bones.

TWEET THIS: Joy is inherent to God's approach to the world. Joy is characteristic of wisdom.

We lack imagination when we lack joy. But more than that, we lack the resources we need to persevere through the hardships we inevitably face. "More than whimsy," Margaret writes, "joy is a weapon we use to fight life's battles.

Sure, the virtue of joy is an upbeat companion for life, but that is not the whole story. The true power of joy supersedes a chirpy disposition, candy-coated emotion, or saccharine fantasy. It’s far more tangible than any magical notion of clicking your heels and discovering your bliss. Joy serves a useful and mighty purpose.
TWEET THIS: We lack imagination when we lack joy.

I haven't faced something so soul-shattering as a cancer diagnosis. But if (or when) I do (maybe this will be the year), I hope I'll face it less like an Xer and more like a Millennial, like Margaret. I hope I'll remember that despair is accidental to our existence; it doesn't enter the picture till Genesis 3, and it doesn't survive past Revelation 21. Before and after and all the way through the Bible - before and after and all the way through life - there is joy available to us, joy bred into us, joy undergirding us and overseeing us. Maybe this will be the year we lean into that fact and discover just how powerful joy is.


You can get a copy of Margaret's Fight Back with Joy pretty much wherever you want: from Amazon, from Barnes & Noble, from Christian Book Distributors, from an independent bookseller, maybe even from a local church. Give it a read, by yourself or with a group of friends. (There's a companion video series to support group discussion.) I know you'll like it, and you may well find yourself better equipped for the next joy-testing event in your life.

Fight Back With Joy 6-Session DVD Bible Study Promo Video from Margaret Feinberg on Vimeo.